By Jake Howell firstname.lastname@example.org
Cannes Competition Review: Mud
For the most part, Jeff Nichols’ third narrative drama Mud is an endearing film about how children view committed romantic relationships. It’s also a bit of a disappointment: fans of Nichols’ earlier, more intense work may find Mud’s story too naïve, too soft, and perhaps even too silly to properly enjoy it.
Matthew McConaughey plays Mud’s title role, a wanted man on the lam in rural Arkansas. He is met by Ellis and Neckbone, two precocious pre-teens channeling Mark Twain’s classic figures, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, who are out on a routine exploration expedition. Initially pegging him as a vagabond, the pair hear Mud’s sob story behind his crime–he shot a despicable man dead–and of Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), the woman Mud has been trying to marry. Viewing Mud’s quest for love as honorable—Ellis’ parents are in the process of divorcing each other – they agree to help Mud reunite with his former flame.
Ellis is played by up-and-coming Tye Sheridan, who looks amazingly different from when audiences first saw him in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Make no mistake: Sheridan’s Ellis goes toe-to-toe with the film’s major talent, effectively outclassing them in many aspects. Jacob Lofland’s Neckbone is no slump, either. These boys are given a lot of responsibility in Mud, but they handle the pressure with believable performances and uncommon competence. You likely won’t need to remember Sheridan’s name—it’s pretty clear he’ll be breaking hearts relatively soon–but Lofland should also continue to surprise and impress.
Where 2007’s Shotgun Stories was about violence and 2011’s Take Shelter reflected on fear, Mud’s primary concern is love. Nichols has gone on record saying Mud is a story that tries to capture the spirit of puppy crushes and first-time heartbreaks, and the film comes close to bottling these magical emotions. Not quite, but close: sadly, there are other aspects of Mud’s script that feel unexplained, generic, or otherwise laughable.
The narrative gaps in this film are more than problematic, and some of them are unintentionally funny. Despite a suitable performance, McConaughey’s Mud is entirely unexplained as a character, and the same diagnosis applies to Witherspoon’s Juniper. The problem here is that the audience never really knows their motivation for, well, anything: sure, the romance is authentic, but that doesn’t exactly matter when the characters are false. Mud, as a character, is actually more myth than real: he appears and vanishes from scene to scene, and somehow gains important information that the audience doesn’t see him learn. Are we watching an episode of “Lost”?
Given the clear talent exhibited in Nichols’ direction, the above issues are disappointing. However, a few things were very clear at the Cannes press conference for Mud: firstly – and most importantly – Jeff Nichols is a sincere storyteller, and you can tell he has only the best intentions with his narratives. Money and box office records aren’t a part of Nichols’ end goal, which is an extremely admirable (and increasingly rare) philosophy towards filmmaking. Even if the film tanks, Mud still means a lot to Nichols. He simply wants to tell stories that are personally important to him, and that’s respectable.
Nichols shouldn’t get a pass simply for being a nice guy, of course, but there is enough to like in Mud that the film gets one anyway. While this isn’t a movie that wants to do anything particularly new – it doesn’t, really—it has a lot of heart. In the end, despite the various plot holes—and there are many—it’s an earnest, youthful take on love’s many facets, which include divorce, betrayal, and rejection.
Because of these uncharacteristically upbeat messages, it would be easy to recommend Mud to younger audiences. However, in stark contrast, the film’s finale features some fairly graphic violence. Demographically speaking, it’s unclear who this movie is intended for, but then again, Nichols doesn’t appear to be too concerned with that. Still, it’s jarring.
For all its faults, Mud does exhibit all of the wonderful cinematographic and directorial qualities found in his earlier work, which help make up for a lackluster script. Nichols is in love with natural environments, and he does an excellent job at capturing contemporary rural America. The urban scenes look great, and the landscapes are seriously stunning. There are some legitimately awe-inspiring Steadicam shots in Mud, and they are a very welcome addition to Nichols’ directorial style. Mud also doesn’t shy away from reality: by naming names and filming actual places—like the town Piggly Wiggly, for example—the film gives the audience a good sense of what life in Arkansas is like, as there are subtleties in Mud that only a local could know. At least the milieu of Mud feels real!
Jeff Nichols quickly became one of my directors to watch after his mind-blowing sophomore feature Take Shelter. I am still quite fond of his work, including to some extents Mud, but there are more problems in his third feature than I am willing to ignore. As a whole, Mud has some elements of greatness—the craft, the performances, the sincere intentions behind it all—but the film sags from a less-impressive story than what Nichols is known for.